Nestled on a hillside in northern Virginia, Breaux Vineyards' 105 acres of vines are looking good this year, according to General Manager Chris Blosser.
While California still makes the vast majority of American wine, all 50 states produce it. Virginians have been growing grapes for some 400 years, starting in the Jamestown settlement, and the wine business has surged in the state over the last decade. Soil and climate conditions in Loudoun County, where this family-owned vineyard is located, make it one of Virginia's top wine-producing regions.
The drought plaguing much of the country has hurt corn and soy crops, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimating that 2012-2013 corn yields would hit the lowest level since 1995-1996. But the drier than normal growing season can be good for grapes.
"As a general rule, all grapes like it dry," Blosser explained during a tour of the estate one August morning. "They really thrive on having their leaves dry, not having the molds and mildews and funguses take root on the leaves."
Dry weather allows for a greater concentration of sugars in the grapes, enhancing the flavor. Too much rain has the opposite effect, diluting the flavor. Breaux grows 18 different kinds of grapes - including Viognier and Syrah, which thrive in warm, dry climates. Much like in the long, hot summers of 2007 and 2010, the growing season for the grapes began early this year and Breaux expects to begin harvesting some of them in the next few weeks. Blosser is hoping the dry weather continues.
"Around harvest time we like to have as little water as possible," said Blosser. "We'd be OK with, pretty much, if we get through October without another drop of rain."
Vintners in parts of the country hit hardest by the hot, dry weather - July was the hottest month since the government began keeping track - stand to reap even greater benefits than the vintners in Virginia when it comes to flavor.
"Particularly in the Midwest, the hardest hit areas in terms of the drought, there are folks that are thinking that the grapes are going to be a better quality this year because the berries are smaller and the sugar is more concentrated," she said. "This is an extended event that we haven't gone through before so this is sort of uncharted territory. So we're not quite sure where the line is of where the short-term benefits are and where the long-term risks or long-term damage may show up."
The downside to long periods of extremely dry weather is smaller harvests and potential damage to young vines, which are expensive to plant and take years to reach maturity.
"Generally speaking, to put an acre of vines in the ground is going to run $10,000, $15,000 per acre and you're not going to receive a return on your investment or profits you can use until three, five, seven years in," explained Montgomery. "It makes it a little different than other crops. It takes a lot of money, a long-term commitment and it's a pretty complicated business."
She said many vineyards - outside the more traditional wine-producing regions - don't have crop insurance, which could make it more difficult for them to replace damaged vines, should something go horribly wrong.
Blosser has seen no evidence of heat stress on the vines at Breaux. Their vines face more threat from deer, bears and birds - animals kept at bay by netting, machines that produce artificial sounds and other strategies - than they do from the weather.
"If things keep going the way they have been, you know, we're looking at a really nice harvest," he said. "If we continue with this dry weather, you're going to end up with less water inside that berry, so in terms of the wine output, you're going to have less quantity, higher quality."
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